BACKGROUND Developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s, the Alexander Technique aims to bring back the natural qualities of balance, poise and posture that we were all born with but over the years have lost owing to bad habits such as stooping or slouching. In our recent feature on back pain (see “Back on track”, businesstraveller.com/archive/2012/april-2012), there was a short report on my experience of my first lesson. Having seen that it might be of benefit for my troublesome back, I decided to try it for a couple of months to see what it could deliver for me. My trainer was Noel Kingsley, who was trained to teach the technique in the 1980s by a protégé of Alexander himself. He is an author of several books on the subject and has a practice in London’s Cavendish Square.
HOW IT WORKS Kingsley’s website claims that “you can enhance your health, your sense of well-being, and your performance in any activity you undertake by improving your poise”. Some of the specific benefits could include better balance and co-ordination, greater agility and stamina, improved sports performance, better spinal alignment and posture, clearer thinking, deeper breathing, improved voice, digestion and emotional calmness, centredness and confidence. Well, that’s a lot of promises. For me, I really had a simple request – to reduce the stiffness and pain in my back. I have been a fairly regular visitor to physiotherapists over many years, so anything to reduce the discomfort and need for manipulation seemed like a good thing.
It is recommended that when you start you have a high frequency of lessons (two to three a week), dropping to one a week as you progress before only returning for “refreshers” as required. Kingsley is not a therapist, so does not look to give treatment – rather, he is a trainer so provides the skills for you to apply yourself and, through his expertise, takes you to a higher level than you could achieve on your own.
In the first few lessons, Kingsley concentrated on getting my standing posture correct and guiding me between the sitting and standing positions. The principles of the technique are essentially to make sure your neck is free and that you “think” your head into raising and your back into lengthening. It’s not about pushing the muscles to make the head move, but making the brain send the instructions to allow it to happen. This is something you can do whether you are walking, sitting or standing. Kingsley guides you with each movement to ensure you are doing the right things and uses his hands to help free the neck and lengthen the back.
So is the technique all about thinking but not trying to do anything? The short answer is yes. In the lessons, you also lie on a table in a semi-supine position, in what he calls “active rest”, and again he helps to guide your neck and back. By keeping the neck free and getting the head/back relationship right, you start to get your muscles working in a natural way with the correct
co-ordination. In essence, you are retraining your muscle memory to ensure that one’s body is not held – probably in an incorrect posture – but is in a natural position, as it should be.
THE IMPACT One of my issues is that I tend to hold my shoulders in a certain position so, along with my back, they ache and lock up, especially at night (or on a plane), keeping me awake. After a couple of sessions, my shoulders felt less stiff and I was sleeping better, and this continued to improve throughout the course. I also felt taller and, on some occasions, slimmer.
I also became more aware of what I was doing wrong – such as slumping at my desk or holding the telephone with my neck. It became more natural to think about my posture – while walking, for instance, I’d be thinking about releasing my neck and extending my back.
Kingsley introduced more variety to the sessions as they went on, such as the monkey position – what he called the position of mechanical advantage and what I would call squatting a little. There was a breathing exercise called “whispered ahs”, designed to open the airways. I had noticed early on in the sessions that the technique had brought about more movement in my ribcage and chest.
VERDICT Since starting the sessions, I have not been to a physio once. My back pain has all but disappeared and I am sleeping better, so it has been a resounding success. Sadly, my game of squash has not improved.
- PRICE Sessions last 45 minutes and cost £80 each.
- CONTACT Noel Kingsley, 19 Cavendish Square; tel +44 (0)20 7491 3505; firstname.lastname@example.org; alexander-technique.com. See stat.org.uk to find your nearest Alexander Technique teacher.
- FURTHER READING Noel Kingsley, Free Yourself from Back Pain, 2011, Kyle Cathie, £14.99.